ARCHI’s ACRES – Sustainable Employment for Veterans through Sustainable Agriculture

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The first occasion was defending the nation as a Marine Corps husband-wife team. Colin was not only a Marine Rifleman, he was a Marine noncommissioned officer. While media pundits and politicians focus on super fighter jets, unmanned drones and the Hollywood virtues of thermobaric Hellfire missiles, combat soldiers know that the most lethal, versatile and effective weapons systems in the American arsenal are sergeants. In combat they are responsible for making the very first tactical decisions, usually before anyone else even knows what’s happening. They can turn a bad plan into a brilliant victory while without them the best plans are often worthless. In my experience, the collective quality of these professional warriors defines a unit’s “elite-ness” more than any other factor. 


Former Marine Sergeant Colin Archipley and his wife Karen founded the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program to help other veterans achieve meaningful employment in sustainable agriculture.

Former Marine Sergeant Colin Archipley and his wife Karen founded the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program to help other veterans achieve meaningful employment in sustainable agriculture.

Sergeant Archipley repeatedly led Marine Infantrymen at the point of contact in Iraq, including through the brutal fighting in Fallujah in 2004. After three combat tours, the Archipleys decided the time was right to serve in other ways and the seeds of what would grow into a second national treasure were literally planted.


Before Colin deployed to Iraq for the third time in 2005, the Archipleys purchased a small 200-tree avocado farm, which they christened “Archi’s Acres.” The three-acre farm is nestled in a scenic semi-rural valley near Escondido, California, right behind the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton where Staff Sergeant Archipley was stationed.

The Archipleys might have been content nurturing their avocado trees and growing tomatoes if not for their first month’s $850 water bill – which sent them searching for a more financially sustainable way to run their farm. 


Archi's Acres. Two hydroponic green houses and avocado tree orchards framed by the 'Back 40' of Camp Pendleton in the background.

Archi’s Acres. Two hydroponic greenhouses and avocado-tree orchards framed by the ‘Back 40’ of Camp Pendleton in the background.

They discovered a solution to more than just their water-bill problem in hydroponic farming. When Colin returned home from his final deployment, they built a greenhouse and started growing basil. The soilless organic hydroponic system they built uses only one tenth of the water needed for an equivalent crop on a traditional farm and Karen was able to secure contracts to supply their organic produce to local super markets, including several Whole Foods stores.


Colin left the Marine Corps in October 2006 but wanted to maintain more of a connection to the Marines than afforded by the view from their home and farm of the hills of Camp Pendleton’s “Back 40.” That desire germinated another place for the Archipleys on the list of America’s national treasures — the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program– VSAT in proper military acronym form.


Through the VSAT program, Colin and Karen share their knowledge and experience with transitioning Marines and other veterans and help them replicate the success of Archi’s Acres. The six-week course they developed and teach not only provides veterans with enough knowledge of hydroponic greenhouse agriculture and the technical skills to set up and run their own greenhouse-centered farms, the Archipley team also teaches them the business and marketing skills to succeed as a business as well as a farm.


The greenhouses at Archi's Acres feature soilless, hydroponic growing systems and are automated to adjust for weather conditions.

The greenhouses at Archi’s Acres feature soilless, hydroponic growing systems and are automatically adjust to weather conditions.

The program’s title as a ‘training’ program insufficiently describes what the program really achieves. Even a lengthier descriptor such as a “seed-to-market sustainable organic agriculture entrepreneurial incubator” falls well short of the mark because VSAT provides far more than a skillset and post-graduation support.


The key to VSAT’s extraordinary potential is how Karen and Colin structured their program. From the outset they teamed with the nearby state university Cal Poly Pomona to get nationally-recognized accreditation. The university awards 17 college credit hours on completion of VSAT. The Archipleys also specifically engineered VSAT to meet the US Department of Agriculture’s experience requirements —  completing VSAT is equivalent to one year of farm management experience or a four-year degree in soil science — and so qualifies for a USDA-guaranteed farm loan. Combined with start-up equipment discounts the Archipleys negotiated with several leading national suppliers of agricultural equipment, meeting the requirements for a government-guaranteed loan provides Vets with the all-important financial resources to go into business as well as the technical know-how.


The Archipleys’ foresight enables Vets to take advantage – with their existing educational benefits – to cover the program’s $4,500 tuition. Since VSAT is a college-accredited program, Vets and even active duty service members can use the GI Bill, VA Vocational Rehabilitation or tuition assistance.  Several Veteran-serving nonprofits such as the Marine Semper Fi Fund, DAV and Armed Services YMCA also provide tuition grants for qualifying veterans.


Although not exclusively for Vets and transitioning service members, over 80 percent of their students are Veterans and many are struggling with invisible wounds and other service-connected disabilities.


“Agriculture is blind to invisible injuries,” Karen told me. And that was what first interested Stand for the Troops in Archi’s Acres— leading them to dispatch me on assignment to visit the Archipleys in the summer of 2014. Karen and Colin where successfully solving some of the biggest challenges of disabled-veteran employment AND healing.  Simultaneously.


Invisibly wounded warriors face substantial barriers to achieving full and persistent employment. According to the experienced former military physicians who created the Veteran-serving nonprofit  Military Disability Made Easy, a typical combat Veteran rated at only 50 percent disabled by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder:


“… may try to work, but will not be able to hold a job for more than 3 or 4 months because of their inability to remember or follow all directions or other similar reasons based on the symptoms or circumstances described under this rating. (In other words, they wouldn’t lose their job simply because they have anger issues and would regularly get in fights. A person like that could also not hold a job more than 3 or 4 months, but they would still be considered able to work). This individual would only be hired for jobs like cleaning, picking up trash, or other simple-task jobs.”

While the Americans with Disabilities Acts legally obligates employers to make reasonable accommodations for Vets with combat disabilities like PTSD, the reality is that there is little understanding among employers or even among Veteran-employees of how to accommodate invisible injuries with their multiple insidious, inconsistent and difficult to predict mechanisms of disability. In many cases even reasonable accommodations are simply not enough.


But where even the best intentioned accommodations fail, Archi’s Acres succeeds. The keys are flexibility and scalability. For a combat Vet functionally impaired by invisible wounds, greenhouse agriculture enables a level of flexibility uncommon in most jobs. While nature dictates that some tasks must be done at certain times, for the most part a Vet can adapt his schedule to his own needs, health and abilities, providing the most effective and timely workplace accommodation. The owner of an Archi’s Acres-style hydroponic greenhouse agriculture business is able to scale both the scope of the business and his or her personal workload. A greenhouse farm as small as one-tenth of an acre can be run profitably. Alternatively, a Veteran with a larger farm or limited in the number of hours he or she can work can hire employees to do the work the Vet cannot. At the time I visited them, the Archipleys employed one full-time and two part-time employees to work their three acres (expanding to six) of avocado trees, tomatoes and greenhouses, freeing Karen and Colin to focus most of their time on running the VSAT program.


By June 2014 the Archipleys had coached and mentored 240 graduates through their VSAT program. Two-thirds of the those graduates now either own or manage farms. Impressively, Karen and Colin have been able to do so much for Veterans within the framework of a self-sustaining B Corporation (a special category of for-profit corporation that provides a significant public benefit) instead of a donor-dependent non-profit which means the Archipleys will be able to continue independently serving the Nation’s Veterans for years to come.


To learn more about Archi’s Acres and the VSAT program, visit their website at, and watch this five-minute video and this 24-minute documentary.


Veteran Unemployment and PTSD

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Veteran unemployment continues to be a major problem in assimilating brave veterans back into society after their return from active duty in a hostile environment.  While there is an unemployment compensation program administered by the government for ex-service members called UCX, most veterans would prefer to have a job.

While the vast disparity in veteran unemployment compared to civilian unemployment levels that existed in the past has narrowed, a recent government study argues that returning Veterans are likely to face some period of unemployment.   “For veterans, unemployment is the biggest predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity, says a new study. The PTSD symptoms may be combat-PTSD-related or sexual-trauma-related, but either way, veteran unemployment predicts the severity of PTSD symptoms more than even indicators like depression.”

Veteran Unemployment and PTSD Symptom Severity

Aside from the stability that a job provides, some studies suggest that employment may also help Veterans cope with PTSD.  From my perspective, it is a bit of a “chicken-and-the-egg” situation as many potential employers may be unwilling to risk hiring a Veteran with symptoms of PTSD.  In fact, many of these Veterans may have resorted to drugs and/or alcohol to help them deal with PTSD.  This may make it next to impossible to receive employment offers given mandatory drug testing.   Nevertheless, for those employers willing to take the risk, a steady job can help mitigate the devastating impact of PTSD.

The researchers who did the study are not claiming causality in any way, there is simply a correlation between veteran unemployment and PTSD symptom severity. That said, it is reasonable to think that meaningful employment for veterans, particularly those with combat PTSD, may help returning veterans psychologically. While we don’t know that for a fact, what we do know is that veterans are a valuable addition to the civilian workforce and their work to defeat poaching in Africa is just one example of that value.  Unemployed Veterans Suffer More Severe PTSD Symptoms | Understanding Combat PTSD – HealthyPlace

Deeper Than Scars of War: Healing PTSD with Old Ways

Found below is a fascinating article which describes how one Veteran got back to his “Choctaw family roots,” to help deal with the symptoms of PTSD and simultaneously help preserve the great traditions of this Indian tribe.  Let me introduce, James Tom:

The scars of war run deep for Oak Park Heights, Minnesota resident James Tom, the type of scars that can’t be seen at first glance. Where the battlefield could have taken his limbs or his life, it instead gave Tom the debilitating affects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression that eventually took his self-identity. When the United States Army and the Veteran’s Administration gave Tom the status of full disability benefits, living with the illness could have “driven me stir-crazy,” Tom said. Instead, Tom found the only thing that runs deeper than any of his scars is his culture and heritage.

Tom traces his family roots to both the Mississippi and Oklahoma Bands of Choctaw, and there are about 20,000 Choctaw living in the United States today. Tom began an effort to not only preserve the skills and traditions of indigenous cultures, but to teach others what he has researched and learned.

Tom started slowly with research into his family, into the Choctaw and the indigenous people of the region. Tom said his parents had not taught him many skills or traditions of the cultures, so he began to learn by trying what he read about and saw by going to powwows and other gatherings. Making a drum for a powwow began by learning how to tan hides from deer. After deer hides, Tom turned to tanning buffalo hides using the traditional methods of brain tanning by using animal brains rich in emulsified oils to soften the skin for leather making.

It was through word of mouth in the community that Tom became known for his skill of the traditional method of brain tanning, causing many to seek him out to learn the skill. The week-long tanning process is difficult and requires a lot of commitment to do it correctly. The skins must be fleshed—scraped of all fats and membranes—then stretched and soaked in water. The fatty brain material is rubbed into the skin, soaked in water again and then smoked in a special fire.

Nawayee Center School is a charter school that teaches students who are predominately from Native American families. While the school teaches classes like math and reading, its mission is to connect students with their cultural identities through hands-on learning and programs like brain tanning and other indigenous arts.  “We were able to get a grant to bring James in and teach the students,” Ladd (School Director) said. “He first came to the school with squirrel hides. Now the kids are working on the big buffalo hide.”

For Tom, teaching others about this part of his heritage has helped him find peace.“I absolutely think it has helped me. I have been able to find my own identity again,” Tom said. “Everyone has a heritage and a big part of who you comes from it.”  This piece has been republished with permission from the Stillwater Gazette, where it originally was published on May 4. via: Deeper Than Scars of War: Healing PTSD with Old Ways

As this story illustrates, there are many ways in which Veterans can create meaningful employment opportunities for themselves and help others at the same time.